Where and when did the idea for EFE originate?
My daughter was down by the World Trade Center during 9/11, and after I managed to find her we started talking about why this was going on. I became a firm believer that if we were going to have global harmony, it was important that [the Middle East and North Africa] have a piece of the global pie. I hired the Brookings Institution and brought some really brilliant people on board to help me figure out what I could do to make an impact, and I learned that education in the region was not really leading to jobs. We decided we would build global training franchises, but that the foundations themselves would be locally owned, because you can’t have the impact if the locals don’t care and it’s just a bunch of Americans running around thinking they know all the answers. Frankly, that model has turned out to be extraordinarily successful because the people that run the local franchises have taken ownership and pride, they’ve put in time and money and effort, and they know where the jobs are, and they know what training has impact. When you send a dollar and it’s through the auspices of a local foundation, the impact is so much greater.
How effective a tool is EFE in terms of achieving its goals?
We see our foundations as a business, and we see ourselves as being very similar to a for-profit business, in that we want to be efficient, we want to get the best return on our investment, and we have a whole system to evaluate and monitor so that we know what we get for a dollar and when we make a profit. Our ‘profit’, meanwhile, is very simple: it’s the number of people employed. When we do training we shoot for 85 per cent of our graduates to be in the labour market. Sometimes it’s higher than that; I did a graduation ceremony in Tunis recently and 100 per cent of the graduates were in jobs. Other times it’s not so high; we had a programme in Jordan where we were dealing with ex-cons and drug dealers, and our success rate was only 50 per cent. Last year the average was about 70 per cent, and this year it looks as though it’s about 80 per cent.
How important is it that EFE graduates find employment straight away?
It means everything. In one of our first programmes we were taking accounting graduates from Islamic University of Gaza and placing them with a large construction firm in the Gulf. However the border closed between Gaza and Egypt for a while and kids could not get out into the labour market. One young man just went out into the desert, in full knowledge that he would probably die out there. But he really didn’t care and somehow he managed to make his way to the Gulf and got a job as an accountant. He went from somebody who was helpless, to someone who would either die or get a job – either of which was preferable to what he had been doing. His despair was that intense. He told me that getting a job was so paramount that going into the desert was not a courageous thing at all: it was simply something he had to do.
What does the future hold for EFE and its operations?
We’ve reached a critical point where things could go in one of two directions. The first is that we keep doing what we’ve been doing and train thousands more people for jobs, or the second is that if we can get to a greater scale, we can get more funding and more strategic partnerships in the region. We already have more than 1,000 partnerships, but we’re looking to create a tipping point where the system no longer allows institutions to train and not place. You’re starting to see that in Morocco, for instance, where we’re not only training our own graduates but we’re helping [government] training centres in the country do a better job. If we can continue on that route, we can change the way education is dealt with in the country. I’m hoping that within the next three or four years we will reach that tipping point in each of the countries in which we operate. I’m hoping that the work we’re doing will become persuasive enough and significant enough in the region to really change how education is delivered.
EFE already operates across eight countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Are there plans to extend this network?
We’re looking at expanding into other countries, and we’ll probably go into Libya. However I think we can make a serious difference in the countries in which we already operate, and I don’t want to squander that opportunity by trying to go everywhere. At the moment we are a great vehicle for donations because we’re giving a good return on investment and really making a difference. We’re not a foundation where people go around singing campfire songs and feeling good, we’re actually making a difference, placing thousands of kids in jobs. And if we can continue to expand what we’re doing, we can change the way education is delivered in the region so it’s much more focused on job creation.
Is it easier to make a difference today then it was when EFE first launched?
There is a much stronger awareness of what needs to be done than there was when we started, a much stronger awareness that jobs anchor peace and stable societies. Back then people realised it was important, but they didn’t realise how important. It’s amazing now that I’m a very small part of a very robust machine. We have more than 100 full-time employees and ownership has moved from me to others. I honestly believe that if I got hit by a bus tomorrow, they would take it forward without a problem. Every now and again I’ll catch myself and say ‘what are you doing? You’re working harder than you ever did in the for-profit sector’. The travelling is killing me but I do it and I enjoy it. When you go into a room and see hundreds of kids who at one point were never going to get jobs, had no self-esteem or self-respect and were angry and frustrated… now they’re reborn, and it’s incredibly exciting to be a part of that.